It was a memorable year for the quadrennial solo Route du Rhum race from Saint Malo, France, to Guadeloupe, with everything from storm conditions to plenty of disabled boats and nail-biting finishes at the end to mark the event’s 40th anniversary.
The 11th running of the 3,542-mile classic, which has been won over the years by a who’s who of the world’s solo-sailing elite, began with ideal conditions for the 123 solo sailors at the start. But it then quickly descended into controlled chaos as the notorious Bay of Biscay lashed the fleet with gale force winds and towering seas, prompting many skippers to take shelter along the nearby coast of Europe.
Ironically, among the earliest victims of the weather were those in the oversized Ultime multihull class, with Sébastien Josse, who had gotten off to a great start aboard Edmond de Rothschild, soon losing the bow of his starboard ama in 30 knots of wind and 15ft seas. After that, it was French Vendée Globe winner Armel Le Cléac’h, whose Banque Populaire IX capsized after its port ama snapped in similar conditions. Fortunately, both skippers were unhurt in their accidents.
Other victims of the rough conditions included Franco-German IMOCA sailor Isabelle Joschke and British skipper Sam Goodchild aboard the Class 40 Narcos Mexico, both of whom lost their rigs. “I had just picked up a few places,” Goodchild said afterward. “I went down below and started to tidy up, and then there was a big bang. I came up on deck, and the whole rig was in the water, and we were drifting over the top of it.”
One sailor who made it through the ordeal in one piece was 52-year-old American skipper Michael Hennessy aboard the Class40 Dragon.
“Last night was a classic,” he reported the morning after. “Winds built to sustained 35 knots and gusts to 40. Sea height was 12ft. Dragon took flying lessons, and while her launch is pretty good, her landing needs some work.”
After that, it was fairly smooth sailing across the open Atlantic, until things started to get exciting again toward the finish—especially for 62-year-old French sailing legends Francis Joyon aboard the Ultime IDEC Sport and 35-year-old François Gabart aboard the Ultime MACIF, who’d been dueling ever since escaping the storm. In the end, Joyon drifted across the line in a near calm a mere seven minutes, eight seconds ahead of Gabart, in the process setting a new course record of seven days, 14 hours and 21 minutes.
“It was only one-and-a-half minutes before the finish that I realized I could win,” Joyon said. “Before the last gybe François was faster than me with his Code Zero and practically all the way to the finish line I had a vision of him steaming in and passing me again because he was going 2 or 3 knots quicker.”
Alas, another sailor who experienced some drama of the very worst kind toward the end was British sailor Alex Thomson who’d held a commanding lead throughout only to run his IMOCA monohull Hugo Boss aground in the race’s final stages. Because he had to use his engine to get his boat off the rocks, Thomson was given a 24-hour time penalty, which in turn dropped him into third place, giving the class win to Paul Meilhat aboard SMA.
In all only 76 skippers made it to the finish, among them Hennessy (for whom this was the first solo transatlantic) who finished 12th among the 53 Class40s (18 of which abandoned the race) with Frenchman Yoann Richomme aboard Veedol-AIC taking first. For complete results, visit routedurhum.com/en.